The climate has changed here in L.A. and you probably didn’t notice

Rainy winters in California mean lots of fires come fall. Always been that way. Everyone looks to extreme weather as evidence of climate change. But most extreme weather is just normal variation in weather patterns and the phenomena, like fires, or mudslides and debris flows, or flooding associated with them. Fires are such a regular feature of California that many of our native plants can only reproduce if touched by fire. Every scrub oak you see is there because the acorn it germinated from was scorched in a brush fire. Native animal life has evolved with fire as well—such as the newt native to the Santa Monica mountains that goes from brown to black to match the ash and cinders following a fire. As the area recovers it turns brown again. Who knows how many generations of newts and how many fires it took natural selection to come up with that trait.

There is nothing unusual or new about autumns full of fires in California. If you’ve lived here for decades you’ve lived through a dozen or more hellish weeks of fires. You’ve seen tens of thousands of homes burn on TV. You‘ve seen fire lighting up the hillsides by night and you’ve breathed more smoke than hundreds of pack of cigarettes. You can tell by the color of the distant pall if a fire is growing or dying. You know what the dry winds bring.

But climate change is here in LA, and it’s profound, yet so profound you scarcely notice it because it is climate change and not a change in the weather. It’s the mild summers we now have, because the warmer Pacific has pushed warmer and heavier humid air inland which keeps out the hotter desert air which is what brought us the hundred degree heat waves. And it’s our milder winters because the warmer ocean air keeps out the frigid desert winter air that used to bring us temperatures in the low thirties and leave the vast parking lots around malls in the west Valley splotched with ice. It’s why Santa Ana winds never blow through the LA Basin anymore, because the marine air here keeps out the desert air that used to blow through Hollywood in the fall and leave the streets a mess of palm fronds. It’s why lawns throughout the city remain green year round because the blades of grass draw moisture from the humid air. It’s why you don’t itch all over as your epidermis dries out, and why your hay fever is year round because the air is thick and damp enough to keep microscopic pollen aloft for you to take in with every breath. It’s why mosquitoes from the tropics of southeastern Asian have adapted so quickly to our once mosquito free paradise. All that is climate change, the daily things, the changes so subtle that you don’t even realize how different things are from twenty years ago.

Fires come and go, sometimes in huge conflagrations as in 2017 and 2018, and sometimes in smaller overhyped burns like this year, with hundreds of reporters wondering why more houses aren’t burning. A few months ago it was all the rain we were having, as if climate change was coming in waves of winter storms. We’ve forgotten that already, forgotten the poppies that splashed the fields like spilled paint and then we didn’t notice as all that spring lushness turned the hills and chaparral golden as it always does and now that gold is burning, as it always does. That’s the ordinary annual variation in weather. Most extreme weather events are just that, ordinary variation in weather patterns. It takes years and years before we can distinguish the ordinary variation of seasonal weather patterns from a fundamental change due to climate change. It’s in the changes in the day to day temperatures and humidity and breeze patterns that you can see and feel climate change, and our climate here in the Los Angeles Basin has changed subtly but profoundly in the past decade, and unless the Pacific off our coast returns to its previous chilly temperatures, the change will be here for a long, long time. That is the new normal everyone keeps talking about.

Human extinction, or not.

(This was a Twitter thread)

There are very few examples on planet in human history where human societies or civilizations completely vanished. Even in times of catastrophic change–creation of the Sahara, 90% fatal pandemics in Amazon, volcanic devastation–human beings have stayed, even if reduced from large scale societies to hunter gatherer bands. Society changes, civilizations collapse, but the species does not go extinct. Indeed, our very evolution has been achieved by dealing with continuous stress and change including population crashes to as few as one thousand or less individuals for the entire species for as long as 100,000 years. We survived, evolved and thrived under extraordinary pressures that would have driven most species–indeed all other hominid species–to extinction. We are extraordinarily adaptable and virtually everything about us is designed to allow us to survive under extremely stressful conditions. That’s why we are here and not a single other human species remains. Society, culture, civilization are all dispensable, it is our extended family that is the default unit that allows Homo sapiens to survive almost anywhere under any conditions. The point of this is that no matter how severe climate change is, no matter if civilization collapses and our numbers are reduced to 1/100,000,000th of today’s population, Homo sapiens will survive. It would take something much more drastic–a giant asteroid, perhaps, or a nuclear war involving thousand of warheads–to completely annihilate the species forever. Both of which are possible, of course. But we will survive even the worst case global warming. It will not be comfortable, the impact on nearly all the world’s ecosystems will be devastating, and it’s hard to imagine a more dystopian future, but it will be livable for just enough of us to keep the genome going.

Our grandkids will never believe that people used to walk to the North Pole

(2016)

Sea ice in Arctic shrinks to second lowest level on record. Could be ice free by 2030…. There is no going back, and won’t be for eons, perhaps until the next Ice Age. Incredibly profound change. The arctic will be open to navigation in the summer months before we know it. You’ll be able to go from the Chicago in the middle of North America to Novosibersk the center of Asia entirely by water. Hell, there might be “adventure cruises” doing just that within a decade or two. I think the melting of the Arctic will not only be environmentally and climatically profound, but it permanently alters geopolitics and even the way we view the world on an east-west axis, because the quickest way between Asia and America will no longer be via the Pacific. While we can barely get our heads around any of this, kids born today will have trouble believing that people used to walk on the North Pole. Global warming has happened so much faster than we thought it would.

arctic-ice-pack

Second smallest Arctic ice pack ever, despite the cloudy summer. (Image from the National Snow & Ice Data Center)

Arctic blue

Wow, just read another article about the end of the polar ice cap. It’s amazing to think that the Arctic Ocean is fast becoming navigable. It’s not an if anymore, but a when. Almost daily there are reports in the news and articles in the press about warming air and warming seas. This article in the Atlantic, Huge Waves in the Arctic Demonstrate Ice Loss—and Aggravate It, explains how enormous waves in the arctic ocean, formed in the newly open water and stirred by the increasing winds that come with open water, melt the ice cap even more, creating more open water, more winds, then more open water, more winds, more open water…. It’s a process we can actually see, in real time. It’s nothing like the invisible CO2 build up, or the incremental (if inexorable) temperature rises. These are just great oceanic swells in an open ocean. Beautiful blue water for miles. Broken bits of icebergs floating, melting. The waves slosh and wash and crash against the ice pack, wearing it down, breaking it up, melting it away. White ice becomes beautiful blue water. Inclement weather kicks up wind, as inclement weather does, just like winds kick up on a real unfrozen ocean, an ocean you can’t walk on this side of Jesus, an ocean that won’t freeze you in solid, trapped, doomed. An ocean that a hard shelled boat, not necessarily an icebreaker even, just not too flimsy, can move through, transporting goods or people or resources along the Northern Sea Route.

That’s what they call the open water which lies year round along the Siberian Arctic coast, the Northern Sea Route. Freighters ply the route now, from Europe to the Far East, where once they crossed the Indian Ocean. It’s a third less distance (and no pirates). There’s no dust, they say, and no smog. The water is a deep blue and the ice floating by a range of gorgeous pastels. New sea life, abhorring a vacuum, has moved in, or begun staying year round. It’s a brand new world. The ancient arctic creatures cling to shore. The arctic foxes lose their snow white sheen. On shore the mosquitos and black flies are in clouds thicker than ever. Roads and villages disappear into liquefying permafrost, and great holes appear, unexplained. Travel overland is treacherous. Offshore, though, a few miles beyond the land, the water is blue and the going smooth and lovely and profitable.

But thinking beyond, two or three decades from now, merchant ships will no longer be hugging the Siberian coast like ancient galleys followed the Mediterranean coast, terrified of storms. Entire new trade routes will open up, intercontinental routes. Perhaps within a generation, and definitely within two, you could travel from Chicago in the middle of North America to Novosibirsk in the middle of Asia on a seagoing vessel. You’d leave Chicago and sail though various Great Lakes and up the St. Lawrence and into the Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland. A larger vessel then would continue on a northeasterly course, rounding Greenland and heading toward Siberia by passing north of Iceland and south of Svalbard. A smaller vessel, though, could slip west into a blue water passage through Nunavut (née Northwest Territories) that leads to other passages between the islands in the Canadian Arctic and follow the fishing fleets and tramp steamers and cruise ships past Ellesmere Island and into the open Arctic Ocean. What a sight that will be, a grand vista of the deepest blue. Dolphins, new to these waters, will splash along side. Whales will loll and spout. The ocean waters, free of year round ice and warmed and lit by the sun, will explode with plankton, krill and pelagic fish. The glorious summer light never turns to darkness over the entire trans-oceanic trek, and perhaps your ship will take you over the Pole itself, where northward turns instantly southward. Then on the far side of the Arctic Ocean you’ll enter the Kara Sea, within sight of Siberia, then continue into the narrow gulf that is the largest riverine estuary in the world, hundreds of miles long, beginning in tundra and ending deep in the taiga. There you’d enter the mouth of the Ob River and fresh water. The final leg is southbound up the Ob, surrounded by the vast Siberian forests that fade after a thousand miles into endless, treeless steppe. The nights lengthen, the moon and stars reappear. Finally, after two thousand miles on the river you dock at the sprawling metropolis of Novosibirsk. A journey entirely by water from the center of one immense continent into the center of an even more immense continent by way of an ocean that was once icebound and impassable.

This isn’t a possible future. It’s not science fiction. It is the future. And while we dread the environmental catastrophe that accompanies it, the mass extinctions and desertification and struggles for water towards the equator, there are young entrepreneurs right now in Siberia and Greenland and struggling Inuit communities dreaming about all of this. Dreaming of new ports and new cities and new trade routes. A few of these dreamers will die fabulously wealthy old men, and their walls will be adorned with pictures of polar bears and igloos and glaciers and icebergs, and they’ll tell their grandkids stories of the old days, when you could walk all the way to the North Pole. Their grandkids will look across all that blue water and not believe a word of it.

Northern sea route, 2013.

Northern sea route, 2013.